How Art Engages How it Attends: A Conversation with Dean Rader — curated by Lisa Olstein

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Dean Rader: What a great question. I have often wondered if this book would have existed had there not been a worldwide pandemic, incalculable deaths, and a global lockdown.

I wrote the first poem in 2018, a couple of months after my father died. My sister and I spent an entire weekend going through his effects, and as we unpacked photos and awards and memorabilia and plaques, I kept asking the same question: what makes a life?

 Not long after that, I went to a career retrospective of Cy Twombly’s drawings in New York and in much the same way, started thinking about his work as his “effects” and asking again—what makes a life? That evening, I left the gallery and walked the length of the High Line thinking about everything—my dad, my kids, Twombly, art, how we as humans contribute. It was a lot. That night in my hotel, I started working on what would become the first poem in the book.

It is safe to say that over the next several years I became obsessed not only with Twombly’s work but with writing about it. In fact, I stopped working on the book I was supposed to be finishing in order to devote as much time as possible to this project.

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work?

DR: I believe her, too. In this book, I was thinking less about “page” and more about “canvas.” I kept imagining the space where the poem would appear as a backdrop for a visual text. This entire project is a conversation about the difference between looking and reading.

I wanted the poems to do on the page what Twombly’s work was doing on the canvas. Twombly likes to erase or strike through words, so there are some poems that feature those gestures. A lot of his work feels spontaneous and chaotic, so there are poems that drop the earnest lyric voice and resort to prose. There is a poem in the book, “Unending Octet” that talks to one of Twombly’s famous blackboard scrawl paintings. In the painting, it is unclear if the viewer is to “read” the image from left to right or up and down. Is the movement vertical or horizontal?  So, I wrote a poem that can be read either horizontally or vertically.

One final example. The very last poem I wrote was in response to my mother’s death. It is a poem that talks to a Twombly piece entitled Variations on the Elegies, composed of little more than ten rectangles, that is dedicated to Paul Valery. Now, there are ten Duino Elegies, and Rilke was reading (and translating) Valery when he died. It is my theory that each of these boxes is a Duino Elegy. To me, these boxes look like coffins, and I was reading Rilke (sometimes to her) when she died. So, my poem is written in ten text “boxes.” Four lines of four words each. And each poem contains a phrase from the corresponding Duino Elegy. Ten tiny elegies for my mother, herself an artist.

LO: What’s the relationship between the speaker’s “I” and you, yourself? How is the book’s “I” informed by your I and/or eye?

DR: The “I” in the poems is, for the most part, me. That is a bit of a departure from my previous books. But, as I note, there are elegies for my late parents, and some of the poems are pretty raw. This is my most vulnerable book.

LO: Did you have in mind any identifiable recipients for the utterance of this work? Did your sense of how or to whom the work was speaking evolve?

DR: Great question. I am speaking to my dead parents and to my living wife and sons. I am also speaking to those who have devoted their lives to making. This is a book for people who love aesthetics, who care about art, who are attuned to language. To me, my last book, Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry was very democratic. There are poems in which readers get to pick titles, last lines, and even participate in a choose your own adventure poem. It was inclusive and fun and open. Before the Borderless is not a fun book, but it does invite engagement. It asks readers/viewers to consider how text and image inform each other.

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

DR: Two things.

  1. Putting my poems beside one of America’s greatest artists. What if they don’t stand up to Twombly’s awesomeness?
  2. There is a long chaotic poem (one I refer to above) in the middle of the book that is just all over the place. It shifts registers, prints etymologies of words, includes strike-throughs, goes from lineation to prose and back again, takes a turn toward the meta, talks about refugee camps and climate change, and names my grief over my mother’s death from COVID. The poem is just a mess. That scared me.

LO: How do the book’s aesthetics inform its ethics, or, how do its ethics inform its aesthetics?

DR: In this case, the book’s aesthetics are its ethics. I mean, there are places in which the poems slide toward the political (there is a poem about Sappho and Breonna Taylor, poems that address climate change, poems that interrogate war), but to me, this is a book about how art engages. How it attends to transgression and expression.

LO: What’s your sense of the aural life of this work? What role did sound or music play in the generative process, in revision?

DR: This is the first book of mine in which there are no overly rhyming poems, but many of the poems—those that talk to Twombly pieces about Keats and Rilke—in which I try to channel their sonic brilliance. I probably fail, but again, I was hoping to accomplish sonically what Twombly pulls off visually.

In Twombly’s words, words and letters carry semiotic weight. I try to give my poems aural weight. Lines and slashes and pictorial gestures create movement and rhythm. I try to give my poems corresponding movements and rhythms. I want the poems to sing as loud as the paintings.

LO: As a medium somewhere between time-based and static, poetry engages temporality in a fascinating range of ways. How does time operate inside this work and across the experience it creates?

DR: Well, for most of my life I have been jealous of a painter’s ability to make an instant emotional impact. I mean, you look at a Georgia O’Keefe painting or a Rothko or an Agnes Martin or a Pollock and you are hit—immediately. You don’t have to wonder what a Rothko blue rectangle “symbolizes” or what an orange Frankenthaler stain “means.” They just are. For whatever reason, our brain needs poems to do more than just be. Worse, even short poems take five, ten, thirty seconds to read. And that act of reading is always an act of interpretation, decoding, investigation, interrogation, etc. It takes time. And it takes brainwork in a way basking in a painting does not. I want the poems in this book to be that middle place between visual recognition and textual deciphering.

LO: How did the book’s structure unveil itself to you? What emerged to shape its architecture? 

DR: The book is divided into four sections. In the first and third, each poem is in conversation with a single Twombly image. Thus, readers are able to experience that conversation in real time. By this I mean, when you open the book, you are looking at a Twombly image on the left-hand page and my poem on the right-hand page. You can see the interplay right in front of you. It is sort of magical.

Sections one and three begin with companion poems on really breezy topics like death, loss, and parenting, each of which talks to paintings from Twombly’s Orpheus cycle. The poems in these sections tend to be short, lyrical, and somewhat elliptical.

Section two features longer poems that are inspired by entire Twombly series. For example, there is a rather long and somewhat messy poem I mention previously that responds to Twombly’s Letters of Resignation, which is basically a series of experimental erasures. My poem asks big questions about larger notions of erasure in a form that is kind of erasing itself.

On the other end of the spectrum is a pretty tight poem in ten parts that engages Twombly’s epic ten-panel cycle Fifty Days at Iliam. In this poem, the last line of one section becomes the first line of the next section. The poems are stitched together in a way that evokes the interplay of Twombly’s panels. The fourth and final section, written at the suggestion of my editor, Michael Wiegers, is a kind of epilogue that explains the project and the contexts surrounding its origin and completion.

Overall, my strategy was to do in a book what Twombly does over the course of his career by calling attention to micro gestures and macro concerns. Twombly loved the marriage of text and image. I want my book to celebrate that love.

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

DR: Well, probably half, if not more, of Before the Borderless was written during the pandemic. So, I would say that Twombly kept me company during some really hard months. Also, the poets he samples became companions, especially Rilke. The Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus were always by my side.

I was also listening to a lot of contemporary classical music. Composers like Jóhann Jóhannson, Erland Cooper, Akira Kosemura, Fabrizio Paterlini, Max Richter, Agnes Obel, Gabriel Ólafs, and a great deal of my standby, Erik Satie. Over the past year or so, a few different composers have set some of the poems from this book to music. So, that was also just pure joy.

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

DR: Just before the book was released, my wife received a shocking medical diagnosis that has more or less taken over our lives. You know, the book basically began with the death of my father and ended with the death of my mother. Its release coincided with a terrifying diagnosis. So, right now, I’m working on just holding things together, making it through as best we can.

I feel like it is an utter miracle this book actually came to fruition how and when it did.

Dean Rader has written, edited, or co-edited eleven books. His debut collection of poems, Works & Days, won the 2010 T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and Landscape Portrait Figure Form (2014) was named a Best Poetry Book by The Barnes & Noble Review. Three books appeared in 2017: Suture, collaborative poems written with Simone Muench (Black Lawrence Press); Bullets into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence, edited with Brian Clements and Alexandra Teague (Beacon); and Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry (Copper Canyon), a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award and the Northern California Book Award. Most recently, he co-edited They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence) and Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations (Tupelo). Recent poems have appeared in The Best American PoetryPloughsharesKenyon ReviewThe Southern ReviewHarvard ReviewPrairie SchoonerNew England ReviewBest of the Net, and many others. Dean writes and reviews regularly for San Francisco ChronicleThe Huffington PostBOMB, and Ploughshares. At present, he is collaborating with the calligrapher Thomas Ingmire on a series visual/textual projects. He is a professor at the University of San Francisco and a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry.

Lisa Olstein is the author of five poetry collections published by Copper Canyon Press: Radio Crackling, Radio Gone (2006), Lost Alphabet (2009), Little Stranger (2013), Late Empire (2017), and Dream Apartment (2023). She has also published two books of nonfiction: Pain Studies (Bellevue Literary Press, 2020), a book-length lyric essay on the intersection of pain, perception, and language; and Climate (Essay Press, 2022), an exchange of epistolary essays co-written with Julie Carr.